The demand for heirloom varieties, especially in edible plants, has increased dramatically in recent years. There are many reasons that heirlooms may be better suited to home gardens than hybrids. One of the biggest is that heirlooms are open-pollinated, so you can save seeds year after year.
Last year, high demand during the pandemic created seed shortages, and severe flooding in China caused a seed crop failure that is sure to create an even worse shortage in 2022. But there are other reasons for the rise in popularity of heirlooms.
Oftentimes heirlooms are grown in backyard gardens and have been selected over many decades or even centuries for qualities such as flavor, aroma, color and yields. These are the qualities most home gardeners want. Tough skin and firm flesh aren’t necessary when the journey from garden to kitchen is only 50 feet.
Heirloom seeds saved and grown year after year in a specific area become well adapted to the soil and growing conditions in that area. Saving heirloom seeds makes our gardens more resilient and sustainable, but also reduces our dependence on commercial seed companies. Growing heirloom varieties links us to our ancestors who grew the same varieties. Knowing their stories reminds of us our history.
One of the most satisfying things about growing heirlooms is knowing the history of a variety. A wonderful example of a local heirloom is Gloria’s tomato. Gloria lives in Ellensburg and was gifted the seed from a visiting friend, who got it from her neighbor, Larry, in Pennsylvania. Larry said his family grew the tomato for generations but it didn’t have a name. Gloria stewarded this variety, selecting for vigor, flavor and yields. She sold seedlings of Larry’s tomato at the farmers market but her return customers always referred to it as Gloria’s and on occasion as Glorious tomato.
Gloria generously shared this wonderful variety with Yakima Master Gardeners, who now make it available at our spring plant sale. (Online sale information is at www.tinyurl.com/yakimamg-events.)
Yakima Marblehead squash is a true Yakima heirloom. Marblehead squash was first introduced in Marblehead, Mass., in 1857. It traveled across the nation with pioneers, arriving in Yakima in 1896. Marblehead squash had the ability to adapt very quickly to a new environment, becoming a new variety in each location where it was grown. The large squash would store for over a year and could feed a large family, important qualities at a time when families were big and there was no refrigeration. As families became smaller, the Yakima Marblehead gradually fell from favor. Today it is rare and at risk of extinction, even in Yakima.
Due to numerous requests for heirlooms, at the Master Gardeners plant sale in May we will offer many more heirloom varieties than in the past, including Gloria’s tomato and Yakima Marblehead squash. You’ll also find Model melon, with amazing sweet honeydew flavor and a hint of cantaloupe in a small, personal-size melon; and Golden Kabocha, a small, sweet squash.
For tomatoes, we offer Sungella, a low-water variety; Prudens Purple, similar to Brandywine, but ripening two to three weeks earlier; Karen’s Orange, a beautiful orange-bush tomato; and Taxi, an early yellow tomato.
For peppers, we have Etuida, a large orange sweet pepper; and Antohi Romanian, a small multi-colored sweet pepper. These varieties and many more will be available as seedlings at the plant sale. Free seeds are also available to all members of the Seed Library.
When it comes to the debate on heirlooms vs. hybrids, heirlooms win on aroma, texture, adaptability and the most important reason of all — flavor!